The Redeemed Church of God preaches the gospel in US
- 12 February 2014
- From the section Magazine
For centuries, European and American missionaries have gone to Africa to spread the word of Christ. That trend is now working in reverse, with a Nigerian minister in Texas who plans to build churches as numerous as Starbucks coffee shops.
Drive an hour north-east of Dallas, and you will find yourself staring off into a barren, flat horizon. One out-of-place building rises above the landscape: a 10,000-seat auditorium.
It is the centrepiece for the Redeemed Christian Church of God in North America, a Pentecostal movement that started in Nigeria in 1952.
It is one of Africa's largest and most influential Christian movements, claiming more than five million followers worldwide, mostly in Nigeria.
Pastor James Fadele, who runs the Church in North America, said God told the Church's leader Enoch Adeboye that its North American headquarters would be founded near Dallas - but not where, and not when.
Then, Fadele said, a white man in Texas had a vision.
"God told him, 'The land doesn't belong to you, it belongs to a group of church people,'" Fadele said. "'When you meet them, I will let you know who they are.'"
Fadele, a short man with a booming voice, said a few Redeemed Church members were eating at a local restaurant when they were approached by the white man.
The man told them God had asked him to buy a patch of land, but that the Church was the owner.
"They accepted it, they paid the check, and the rest, as they say, is history," said Fadele with a laugh.
That divine spot is Floyd, Texas, an unincorporated community with a population of 220. Church leaders have grand plans for the property, which now spans 700 acres (283ha): a university, sports complex, even a golf course.
Fadele radiates with excitement describing his vision for future events at the auditorium: "Crazy people for Jesus, people who are in love with Jesus, shouting 'hallelujah', praising Jesus, having prayer vigils, having fun, giving each other high-fives."
Fadele's goal is to establish a church within every 10 miles (16km) in North America, to take as many people as possible to heaven.
"Because heaven is real, God is real," he said. "And that is why we want to plant churches like Starbucks."
At a recent Sunday morning service at a parish in Melrose, Massachusetts, just north of Boston, about 120 people were gathered, larger than the average Redeemed Church congregation. Once parishes start to gain much size, they quickly split to create more branches - the church's growth strategy.
Redeemed leaders say there are 720 churches in North America, nearly double from four years ago, and they claim 15,000 members in the US.
Ruth Marshall with the University of Toronto, who studies Christian movements in Africa and has studied the Redeemed Church, said its aggressive plans stem from its leader and guiding force, Enoch Adeboye in Nigeria.
"He really wants to be an important global player," said Marshall. "One could say that he's almost obsessed with this logic of church planting because for him it's an index of success. And also, prosaically, because the more parishes there are, the wealthier the central organisation."
Each pastor, she said, must send 20% of tithes, offerings and other funds to the headquarters in Nigeria.
The US - where Pentecostalism began - holds special appeal to Church leaders who believe in a manifest Christian destiny from Africa.
At the church service in Melrose, their passion for their mission was clear. People were dancing in the aisles, hugging, and breaking into conga lines. The public address system was cranked way up. People sang with arms outstretched and eyes tightly shut. The place was rocking.
These are Pentecostal Christians who believe strongly in faith healing and miracles and speak in tongues to connect with the Holy Spirit. There were young and old in attendance. Children were downstairs in their own service and toddlers were running around the lobby.
Nearly all Redeemed Church members in Massachusetts, as well as in most North American locations, are Nigerian or African immigrants. For the church to grow, they'll need a lot more non-Africans. That's proven challenging.
Marshall of the University of Toronto said the children of African-immigrant churchgoers are less interested in attending the Redeemed Church, preferring congregations more relevant to their lives.
Back in Floyd, Texas, Pastor James Fadele is not discouraged. He says it will take some time, but they will connect with the greater community, perhaps by renting out the huge auditorium for weddings and rodeos.
He said when people learn they are genuine, they'll join his church.
"I'm not saying all the churches in America are fake," he said. "But... we have come all the way from Africa. We are engaging the people to show them the true Gospel, making sure that people are being saved and people are making it to heaven."